March 16, 2011
Japan, a nuclear reactor, and the American Media

Well, it’s finally happened (again): I’ve reached the point when I can’t stand to watch the alleged “news” on TV for more than a few moments.

We are living in an important, tragic and fascinating moment of human history. (We almost always are, although we often don’t recognize it.) Revolutions in the Middle East have won tenuous success even as others face repression. A horrible earthquake followed by a devastating tsunami has savaged a major nation. A nuclear power plant is crippled and perhaps out of control.

At one level, this is the moment modern news communications services were built for. Advanced technology, instantaneous communication and an endlessly proliferating stream of outlets on cable and on the internet have led to seemingly boundless opportunities to find out what’s going on—in what amounts to real time. It’s a transformative moment in the making of an interconnected world.

And what do we get on CNN and its ilk? The tyranny of the local. When Egypt and Tunisia were “hot,” there was coverage of events there … until gas prices started to rise, and the insane Glenn Beck started spouting his fantasies about the ways Facebook and Google were advancing the cause of triumphalist, fundamentalist Islam. Libya was hot … until the earthquake and the tsunami. So now, as Gaddhafi crushes his opponents, and as Saudi Arabia abets Bahrain in overwhelming protests there, what do US news audiences see as “news”? Stories on whether it’s smart to buy iodine tablets to protect against radiation sickness.

Don’t get me wrong: I think the crisis at the nuclear plant in Japan is a big, important story. My point is: the US media isn’t actually covering it … at least not any more. If you watch the “news,” there’s actually almost nothing about what’s happening at the plant. This, in part, is because the news coming from there is incomplete, complex and perhaps inaccurate, but it’s also because it doesn’t “sell”: stories about the workings (or non-workings) of nuclear plants are, at some base level, boring. Stories about how your children are going to be irradiated are exciting—no matter how baseless they are.

This reality—that the media shift to whatever the hot story of the moment is, chasing “next” like a pack of dogs chasing a fox—is, of course, a long term issue in the US. Among other things, it’s why Sarah Palin has been successful in recent years as she manipulates the media: she offers a stupid tweet, people go crazy discussing it, and then about the time the attention dies down, she offers another stupid tweet, and the cycle begins again. But it’s also why most Americans think you can balance the budget by eliminating foreign aid or cutting teachers’ pensions: the facts are lost in the litany of silly moments. We are less informed than we ought to be in this “information” age.

Now, I wonder where I can get some iodine tablets? Oh, never mind: some ref blew a call during an NCAA tournament game. And did you hear what Sarah Palin said?

February 22, 2010

I tell all my classes that all they need to know about how local politics works is one simple thing: NIMBY.

NIMBY, of course, stands for Not In My Back Yard.  It is simple, and it is a curse.

The premise is simple: everyone wants the benefit of something, but no one wants to do deal with any negative consequences that might emerge from doing the desired thing.  Thus, while they want it, they want it NIMBY.  Ever.

There are far too many examples of this to cite comprehensively, but as a few example I suggest the following.  Wind power, for example, is all the rage, and as my fellow Illinoisans can attest, we have scads of wind from which to generate power.  But wind power-making requires so-called wind farms, vast arrays of windmills spread across the land, and lots of people hate wind farms: they think such farms destroy property values, and birds, and silence, and you name it.  So they fight the making of new wind farms as fast they can.

And lest anyone think I am picking only on central Illinois Republicans (they pretty much are all Republicans around here), the Kennedys are fighting a proposed sea-based wind farm that they could see from their Hyannisport compound on the grounds that it will ruin their view—12 miles out to sea.

We like cheap food, but if you’ve ever smelled a mega-hog farm, you know why no one wants them around.  We like good roads and bypasses, but surely they can go a few blocks further away from our house.   Or miles.  We need places to house parolees, particularly sex offenders, when they are released from prison … but for perfectly understandable reasons no one wants anyone like that anywhere near their homes.  We need good transit lines from places we live to places we work—but don’t want interstates expanded near our homes, and certainly don’t want mass transit lines to bring “the city” to our peaceful neighborhoods.  (Pop quiz: are there more drugs in suburban schools, or urban ones?  Well, which one has money?  It’s a market, after all.) Our infrastructure is decaying rapidly, but we don’t want the parts we use to be shut down for repairs since that will make our lives inconvenient.  And, of course, we don’t want to pay taxes for programs we don’t like and don’t use, but are perfectly happy that tax dollars be used to pay for programs we do like and do use.

(As an aside, one ironic effect of NIMBY and the American prison industrial complex has been to transfer large numbers of city-dwelling convicts to rural prisons, thereby inflating the population of rural areas come census time.  These prisoners, who can’t vote in the rural areas in which they are housed, are counted as residents for purposes of distributing representatives throughout a state after each census.  This means there are more rural representatives, especially from districts with large prisons, than there would be otherwise—especially if the prisons were in the cities.  These law-and-order politicians of both parties then pass laws promoting ever-more severe sentences and more prisons—that then shift more city-folk to rural places they can’t influence.  For many rural areas, of course, prisons have been the only growth industry for nearly 30 years.  It’s quite something.)

I was struck by this by the hue and cry after Obama’s recent announcement of some seed money for new nuclear power plants.  Somehow gutless, wimpy, utterly evil France manages to generate about 80% of its power from nuclear sources, and somehow they deal with the waste, and the security issues, and the other complexities—all in a way that makes France essentially invulnerable to oil price shocks, and the produces power in “relatively” ecologically sensitive, anti-greenhouse gas producing ways.  (The “relatively” has to be in quotes given the waste problem.  Of course, it’s not like coal and oil are “clean,” so we are talking relative risk and consequence here, not absolute.)

We have built a society that uses vast amounts of electricity, and I see no reason to believe that that is likely to change in the future.  Indeed, if anything, things like plug-in electric cars are only likely to increase demands for electric power, and the seemingly endless array of consumer electronics we all have seems likely to add more on top of that.  As it happens, I believe we ought to do a lot more conservation, but I am profoundly skeptical that conservation alone will do the trick.  Just unplugging your various chargers when you aren’t using them isn’t going to keep the electric grid going in California when everyone plugs in their electric cars after they get home from work.  Neither is building televisions that don’t draw power when they are shut off—although that, too, is a good idea.

We’re going to need the power, and it’s going to come from somewhere.  The right thing to do is to emphasize sources that are in our interest regardless whether man is causing global warming or not: solar, wind, nuclear.  They are basically greenhouse gas free, of course, but even better most of the oil states will collapse once we stop needing their oil.  Likewise, the ever-increasing competition for resources we have with China would largely dissipate the day we changed the rules.  We can do things that make life better for us, or not.

Whether it’s global warming, or competition with China, or prisons or schools or roads, It’s going to be in your backyard, no matter where it is.  In the long run, there is no way to keep it out of your back yard.